The first question that most volunteer trail adopters ask is “When do I get to paint a blaze?” I know, because it was one of the first questions I asked when I volunteered to adopt a trail on Mt Washington.
But there’s more to painting blazes than meets the eye, requiring careful consideration of the balance between wilderness preservation, route layout, and the user population (casual day hikers vs weathered long distance hikers) that will hike the trails. For example, over-blazing can ruin the wilderness experience, while under-blazing can result in the creation of social trails, where people create their own shortcuts because the intended trail isn’t obvious.
Weighing the different variables is such an art form that many trail maintenance organizations discourage volunteers from painting trail blazes since an overzealous application of paint can take decades to age away. Instead, volunteers are given the task of clearing water bars for erosion control or easy brush clearing, leaving blazing work in the hands of professional trail crew.
Trail Blazing Guidelines
There are few standardized guidelines in the United State’s trail maintenance community for blazing and local practices vary widely in terms of colors, whether blazes are painted on trees or attached to trees with pieces of wood and plastic, the distance between blazes, the frequency of re-blazing, and so on.
From: How to Paint Blazes by Patrick Wilson (see PATC) – (original source no longer available):
- Blaze in one direction at a time before turning around at the end of your trail.
- Space blazes well apart and at constant intervals.
- Fifty yards apart is a good working minimum.
- At least half the time when walking a trail, no blaze should be visible.
- Two blazes should never be visible at once.
- Most trails are over-blazed.
- Choose live, conspicuous trees close to the trail (on either side), preferably with dark bark. Never blaze rocks, blowdowns, concrete posts, etc.
- Paint blazes at eye level.
- Avoid painting two blazes on either side of the same tree in case it falls.
- Trim back any foliage that blocks view of blaze.
Blazing practices can also vary widely when multiple organizations, for example state and federal organizations, maintain different intersecting trails through the same area,
For example, the blue blazes shown in the photos here are maintained by the State of New Hampshire and mark a side trail off the Appalachian Trail in New Hampshire. The white-blazed section of the Appalachian Trail that intersects it is very sparsely blazed as is the local custom, and probably maintained by the Appalachian Mountain Club or the US Forest Service, I’m not sure which. The contrast in different blazing styles is particularly garish, but arguably warranted since the blue trail is used by day hikers visiting a nearby roadside attraction.
Contrary to what you might expect, trail blazes are not considered route markers for trails but reassurance markers to help travelers identify the trail corridor when the tread is indistinct, the ground is covered with snow, or when the route is confused by multiple trails or obscured by weather, such as dense fog. There are many different types of reassurance markers beyond trail blazes used in trail systems ranging from rock cairns to guide poles, often found in meadows or snow fields.
Seen in this light, the placement of reassurance markers is always a judgement call, often controversial, based on the difficulty of the trail, the expected users, and the challenge of following it.